Coming Home: Thoughts on Rediscovering and Reclaiming Identity

I just finished listening to a fabulous Ted Talk: “The Art of Being Yourself.” In it, the presenter says the following:

With every passing year, your job is to be better and better at being who you already are.

Caroline McHugh, “The Art of Being Yourself”

When I was evacuated from Peace Corps, I didn’t just lose my job, my home, and my community. I lost my identity. Peace Corps is a very strange animal, in that it requires you to become a chameleon. More than any other international job, Peace Corps volunteers undergo a tremendous identity change. You have to become a master at code switching, changing what you say and how you behave in order to adapt to your immediate environment. You have to learn how people think in order to communicate effectively and be understood.

Over time, I found myself internalizing certain habits I picked up from local culture. Here’s an example: in the US, we tend to substitute”Uh-huh” and “uh-uh” for “yes” and “no,” respectively. In the Malagasy dialect that I spoke, it’s reversed: “uh-uh” means “yes” and “uh-huh” means no. This confused me to no end. Are people agreeing or disagreeing with me? Are they saying yes or no? Eventually, though, I adopted this behavior, without really meaning to. In fact, it became so habitual to me that I would do it without thinking, often in the presence of other volunteers, or while talking to my American parents on the phone. I took on this habit, because it was an effective (and, let’s be honest, fun) way to communicate. And it’s still a part of me. I don’t know how to undo it.

Another example is sitting on the floor. People sit on the floor in my region of Madagascar. Not because they don’t have chairs. They’re just accustomed to the ground. I got in the habit of cooking, eating, writing, and socializing, all while sitting crosslegged on the floor. Now, it’s so much easier for me to get work done on the floor. I have a desk in my bedroom, but I hardly use it.

These may seem like small, trivial habits, but they’re important to me because they’ve become a part of me. They represent what I had to go through to survive and what I eventually came to love and cherish. I never considered cooking on the floor before Madagascar. I never peeled carrots in one hand with a pairing knife, or shouted “oiee” when I was surprised or startled, or stopped to say hello to every stranger I pass on the road. These habits are now part of my new, post Peace Corps American self, and I don’t know what to do with them. They’ve become part of my identity, but the identity I was crafting feels painfully irrelevant in post-evacuation, quarantine life.

Now that I’m back, I don’t need to cook on the floor, or answer “uh-uh” as an affirmative, or greet everyone with a firm handshake, or sit down before I start a conversation. I’ve been trying to stir up some of my old habits to fill the void. But nothing feels exactly correct now, because nothing is exactly me anymore. I don’t know who me is. I’m not who I was before 2017…but I’m not who I was up until the evacuation, either.

When I step back and take a birds’ eye view, what’s happening to me now is exactly what I expected to happen. I was pulled out of a life I loved and thrown into a life I didn’t recognize, didn’t plan for, and didn’t choose (at that time), and given no projects and very little guidance. No job or identity was waiting to replace the ones I had abandoned. Only old books and notebooks and tshirts, mementos from a life I had almost forgotten. Maybe I’m having such a hard time being home because I didn’t like who I was before I left, and I buried those parts deep down in the corners of suitcases or left them at the Memphis International Airport three years ago. But they’ve been waiting for me this whole time. It’s time to unpack.

This is scary and painful. But if there’s one saving grace, it’s that I know I can do it, because I did Peace Corps, and damnit, that’s hard. To quote Glennon Doyle, We can do hard things.”

Before I left for Peace Corps, I wrote a manifesto of all the things I wanted to do and not do during my time. It was my contract with myself. It served me well and helped guide me in times of ambiguity. Perhaps it’s time to write another one. Perhaps I need to sit down with this new, post Peace Corps, post evacuation self, on the floor, and write out who I am now, or who I want to become.

No one is expecting me to act a certain way anymore. Maybe that’s liberating. Maybe that’s release. Maybe I can tap back into the parts of myself I liked pre-Peace Corps and leave the rest behind. For now, I need to let that be enough.

Your life has to be your message.

Caroline McHugh

5 Ways Being a Peace Corps Volunteer Prepares You for a Pandemic

Peace Corps Service and Quarantine have a few things in common.

OK, so this post is a little tongue-in-cheek. I understand, we are living in unprecedented times. It’s scary. And yet, writing from my safe, cozy, sturdy home in Memphis, with lights and internet and plumbing, I still feel immensely privileged. I can leave the house once a week for groceries. I can store my food. I have electricity. I can teleconnect with friends and doctors if I need help. I can drive somewhere from the safety of my own car.

In Peace Corps Madagascar, life was very different. However, some aspects of volunteer life are strikingly similar to my new day-to-day reality, quarantined and stateside.

Here are five ways being a Peace Corps Volunteer prepared me to handle this pandemic:

  1. Isolation. Even though I lived in a tight-knit community, I was thousands of miles away from family, friends, and everything familiar. The only way I could communicate was via Facebook messenger, which worked about 50% of the time, or long-distance phone calls, which worked about 75% of the time. On trips to my banking town (the town closest to me with electricity, computers, and ATMs), I would schedule video calls with my parents and friends, getting to see their lovely faces a few times a month.
  2. Telemedicine. In my village, there was one clinic with one doctor who was not always there. The nearest hospital was an hour away…the nearest good hospital was a seven hour drive. We relied on telemedicine constantly, sending in pictures of our weird rashes and describing in detail the shape of our poops to our doctors in the capital (seriously, they’re saints). We took our own temperatures and were trained on self-medicating. I learned that if I have a low-grade fever and less than 4 bouts of diarrhea in an hour, I’m fine, take two tylenol and call me in the morning.
  3. Comfortability with Uncertainty. Will the cyclone hit? Will we have school tomorrow? Will this teacher strike really last the rest of the year? (It did).  Life in the Peace Corps is  unpredictable…uncertainty is the only constant. Many times, I walked to school only to discover that someone in the community had passed away, so we weren’t having class, or the local elections had been tampered with, so we weren’t having class, or the deluge that passed through had flooded the next village, so we weren’t having class. I always had to be flexible and learn not to take it personally if no one showed up to school, or no one gave me a warning before they came to collect me for a meeting I didn’t know I had.
  4. Creative Self-Care. Maintaining your mental and physical health is critical in Peace Corps. As you’re far away from gyms, best friends who double as therapists, brew-pubs, and other familiar spots that help you decompress from a stressful week, you have to learn to adapt. I got really good at creating my own yoga routines and exercising in a 10 foot by 8 foot space. I learned that music cures loneliness, journaling feeds my soul, and sometimes you just need to shut the door and dance it out. Sure, I couldn’t have a delicious IPA and talk about the meaning of life with my friends, but I adapted. I found other things to replace that feeling of satisfaction and release.
  5. Resilience…and knowing when to ask for help. Peace Corps is hard. Being in this pandemic is also, extremely, hard. Despite all the self care and adaptability, I learned over my three years of service that I simply can’t get through everything on my own. No matter how good I get at detecting my own red flags or adapting to changing circumstances, sometimes you just need help. Help is always there if you ask for it. Sometimes this meant calling my parents and saying, “I just need to say things,” and preceding to word vomit all over them for the next 40 minutes (yes, they’re also saints).  Sometimes it would be sitting down with my kind neighbor and complaining, while she nodded her head, laughed, and fed the chickens. (I miss her a lot).  A few times it meant calling my doctors and asking to speak to a professional. No shame, no stigma, just a listening ear to help process the jumbled thoughts in your head. All of these are good options.

Just like in Peace Corps, we are all in this together. Nobody knows when or how this is going to end, but the best thing we can do is to take care of ourselves and each other. Reach out, call a friend, go on a walk, cook some tasty food, breathe. Inhale, exhale.

It’s going to be okay.

At the Top of Madagascar

Climbing Madagascar’s highest accessible peak is a spiritual experience

If you’re a hiker, or you’ve ever been to the top of a mountain, you may understand what I mean about a “spiritual experience.” Recently I listened to a podcast in which a psychologist explained that, physiologically, our bodies respond to intense physical exertion as a sort of spiritual enlightening.

Enlightening, and also painful.

Last year I had one of those spiritual moments when I climbed to the top of Peak Bobby, the tallest point of the mountain Andrigitra. Located in the Southern Highlands, Andrigitra National Park is the highest accessible mountain in the country, and it’s well worth a visit.

The park is located near the small town of Ambalavao, a few hours south of Fianarantsoa, the capital of the Southern highlands. On the morning our adventure began, we woke up early to catch a local taxi-brousse that would take us from Fianarantsoa to Ambalavao, along the main route, the RN7. A few car and truck rides later, and we were entering the National Park.

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Our trail guide maps out our route at the park entrance.

The hike, including summiting, takes as little as three days from end to end, but we chose to do four, so that we wouldn’t be so rushed. I’m glad we did, because is it exhausting. I don’t think any of us were prepared; I lost a toenail in the process. Fortunately, we had excellent company, exquisite views, and lots of homemade peanut butter to get us through the uncomfortable parts.

Our first day’s hike was a nice, gradual incline, broken up with stops at a few natural pools and waterfalls, in which we the craziest boldest of us took a very frigid dip. I’m not usually one for cold water, but after hiking, it was a nice refresher! We had arranged for our meals to be provided, so our guide supplied us with sandwiches and fruit after our swim, before heading on for a steeper climb to base camp #1.

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Views of Base Camp #1

We rolled into base camp around sunset, hungry and tired and nervous for what Day 2, summiting day, would bring. Before we crawled into our tents, we gathered around a cozy fire as the crew assigned to cook for us brewed up some tea and soup and handed out snacks.

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Cozying around the fire as our guides and porters prepared our delicious supper

After decent night’s sleep (it was freezing cold, so trying to stay warm was a challenge), we rose early to ascend the famed Pic Bobby. As we walked, our guide told us stories about the origins of the name Pic Bobby and other anecdotes to distract us from the pain in our legs and joints. Day 2 is not an easy climb! Imagine climbing stairs for three hours straight…that’s what this felt like.

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Spying the massif that would be our adventure on Day 2

Was it worth all the pain? Absolutely.  8,720 feet of majesty and landscape unlike anywhere else  in the world. I tried to remember the last time I had been above the clouds, other than in an airplane. Even though it was windy and freezing, I felt more powerful and freer than I had in a good long time.

There was one more tradition we had to take part in (actually, two, but the second one was our own invention). The first is to write a note and stick it into a metal box, sort of like a geo-catching game. This box was full of inspirational quotes and notes from previous summiteers. We all wrote our names and signed the date. My friend Mallory put it in the box for us.

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Leaving our note for future generations of trekkers

Second: Tequila. Not much, obviously (weight is precious, as we were climbing stairs for three hours, remember?) This might sound crazy, but here’s why: when you spend a significant amount of time away from home (as one does in the Peace Corps), you start to miss the little things: for my friend Mal (and all of us, really), it was tequila. It’s just not drunk in Madagascar. Fortunately, Mal had a friend visiting, who accompanied us on the hike and brought some of her favorite brand tequila, which she poured into a little water bottle and brought for us to toast our summit.

And did I mention that another member of our group, Jesus, is Mexican American and very good at mariachi? It just made sense.

So, from the top of Pic Boby, the highest accessible peak of Madagascar, five Americans toasted their adventure with shots of tequila and mariachi yells over the vast expanse below.

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Celebrating our summit in the freezing wind

Honestly, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The descent was much quicker, and we had the rest of the afternoon to relax at base camp and nurse our sore legs (and finish the rest of the tequila).

Day 3 began early, with a mostly flat trek through the Lunar Landscape, named for its moon rock-like features. As the hours passed, the air around us grew warmer, and we knew that we were leaving our note and our Pic Boby adventure behind.

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Saying goodbye to the Lunar Landscape

The descent down was no less stunning, and we remained above the clouds for a long time.

For our third night, our guide took us to what seemed like a tourist resort in the middle of the mountain. We camped below in the local village but managed to spot a few of these guys lurking nearby:

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Ringtail lemurs coming out to look at the tourists

The end of our trek concluded with a long, flat walk down a dirt road to the nearest village where we could catch a camion (large flatbed truck) back to Ambalavao. There, we loaded up on local snacks like catlass (fried potato pancakes) and nems (egg rolls) and hopped in a taxi-brousse that would finally take us back to Fianarantsoa.

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Views of Andrigitra National Park

Cooking with Coconut (with Recipe)

Coconut is king in Northern Madagascar.

Let’s talk food; is there anything better to talk about?

Someone asked me last week what I miss most about Madagascar. My answer: the food. Not a very common answer, actually. Since Madagascar is so geographically diverse, the food changes drastically depending on which part of the country you’re in. Happily, I lived in the Northwest, where coconut is king.

Before you go picturing me drinking coconut water out of a straw on the beach, know that people in my region cooked with mature coconuts (the ones you drink from are much younger), and typically, they don’t like to drink the water. That never stopped me, of course.

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Making fresh coconut milk using an ambozy, a traditional tool with a wooden seat and a metal grater attached to the end

Maybe you’re thinking of shredded coconut flakes, the kind you put in macaroons. Nope. When people cook with coconut here, they actually shred mature coconuts to make coconut milk. Here’s how:

  1. Whack open a coconut with a machete or a big knife. Pour the water into a zinga, filter it and drink!
  2. Shred each half of the coconut on an ambozy (pictured above). Make sure you have a large bowl placed below for catching the flakes.
  3. Next, add clean water to the shreds–just enough to cover. Start to squeeze the flakes and extract the milk.
  4. Pour the shreds through a strainer into another bowl set aside.
  5. Repeat the process a second and third time.
  6. The first press is always the richest. In my experience, you want to use the first press last, so that your food retains the coconuty-rich flavor.

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Coconut beans! My favorite coconut dish

Of course, if you’re in America, whole coconuts and ambozys can be hard to come by. Luckily, full fat coconut milk makes a decent substitute.

My favorite of all coconut recipes are coconut beans. They’re filling, cheap, and last forever. In Madagascar, I would cook my beans over a traditional fatana sarbonne like the one pictured below, because beans take such a long time to cook. However, if you soak dry beans overnight, they’ll cook up in less than an hour.

When I went home to America, I adapted this recipe and made it for my family using locally available ingredients. I found that I still preferred to use dry beans, because it allows more time for the coconut flavor to absorb. But I’m sure, in a pinch, canned beans would suffice.

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Beans cooking over a traditional fatana sarbonne, a charcoal cooking stove

Here’s my American recipe:

Malagasy Coconut Beans

Serves 8-10 people; can be halved or doubled easily

2 lbs dry dark red beans

3 cans coconut milk

2 large tomatoes

1 large red onion

1 head of garlic

Salt

Pepper

Cilantro (optional)

  1. Soak beans overnight
  2. When ready to cook, rinse beans and fill to cover with fresh water. Do NOT fill the pot with water; fill just enough to cover the beans with maybe an inch of water on top.
  3. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans are starting to get soft but not completely cooked.
  4. When soft but not still not cooked through, add two cans of coconut milk and bring to a boil again. Reduce to simmer and continue to cook the beans until they are soft.
  5. While the beans are cooking, smash the head of garlic with generous amounts of salt and pepper (I like to use a mortar and pestle for tradition’s sake, but you could certainly blend it in a food processor). Add the garlic, salt and pepper blend into the beans and stir. Cover.
  6. Chop the tomatoes and onions and add them to the pot.
  7. Taste a few beans to see if they are soft. They should almost melt in your mouth. At this point, add the last can of coconut milk and cook for ten more minutes, covered.
  8. Taste for salt and pepper. Add more if you like.
  9. Chop the cilantro and add it to the pot. Stir and serve.

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Serve coconut beans with generous amounts of white rice and shredded mango salad.